Professor Ralph Steinman was awarded the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Medicine 2010 for his discovery of the drendritic cell and its role in the immune response.
When pathogenic bacteria or viruses enter our bodies, our killer T cells rush out to attack these antigens while our B cells produce antibodies. For a long time, however, we did not know how this immune response got under way. Then, in 1973, Ralph Steinman and cellular biologist Zanvil Cohn discovered an entirely new kind of cell: the dendritic cell, so called because of its tree-like structure (Greek, dendron, tree). Dendritic cells are found where antigens are most likely to enter the body, for example in the skin and the mucous membranes of the nose, lungs and intestines. This small but powerful group of cells act as sentinels; as soon as they detect antigens in the body, they destroy them and show the broken fragments to other cells, which recognise them for what they are and spring into action. Dendritic cells are so sensitive that they register precisely what is happening in the organs in which they reside. They then conduct the T cell and B cell response, determining whether it should be increased, reduced or modified. After all, although cells that threaten the body must be repulsed, the immune response system should not react to something harmless, and especially not to the body’s own tissue or, for example, a foetus inside a pregnant woman. Since Steinman’s discovery of dendritic cells, their crucial role as conductors of the immune system has become clearer. This insight is extremely important in medical research, for example in combating infectious diseases, cancer, auto-immune diseases, allergies, and the rejection of organ transplants.
Steinman R.M. & Cohn Z.A. 1973. ‘Identification of a novel cell type in peripheral lymphoid organs of mice. I. Morphology, quantitation, tissue distribution’. In: Journal of Experimental Medicine 137: 1142-1162
Steinman R.M. & Cohn, Z.A. 1974. ‘Identification of a novel cell type in peripheral lymphoid organs of mice. II. Functional properties in vitro’. In:Journal of Experimental Medicine 139: 380-397
Steinman R.M., Lustig D.S. & Cohn Z.A. 1974. ‘Identification of a novel cell type in peripheral lymphoid organs of mice III. Functional properties in vivo.’ In: Journal of Experimental Medicine 139: 1431-1445
Steinman R.M., Gutchinov B., Witmer M.D. & Nussenzweig M.C. 1978. ‘Dendritic cells are the principal stimulators of the primary mixed leukocyte reaction in mice.’ In:Journal of Experimental Medicine 157: 613-627, 1983
Nchinda G., Kuroiwa J., Oks M., Trumpfheller C., Park C.G., Huang Y., Hannaman D., Schlesinger S.J., Minezina O., Nussenzweig M.C., Uberla K. & Steinman R.M. 2008. ‘The efficacy of DNA vaccination is enhanced in mice by targeting the encoded protein to dendritic cells.’ In: Journal of Clinical Investigation 118: 1427-1436
Ralph Marvin Steinman was born in Montreal in 1943 and received his M.D. from Harvard Medical School in 1968. After completing an internship and residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, he joined The Rockefeller University in 1970 as a postdoctoral fellow in the Laboratory of Cellular Physiology and Immunology, where he began the research that led to the discovery of dendritic cells. In 1988 Steinman was appointed professor at The Rockefeller University. Ten years later he was named Director of the Christopher H. Browne Center for Immunology and Immune Diseases , where he is now – almost thirty years after his discovery – studying how dendritic cells can be used for therapeutic purposes, for example to develop vaccines for tumours and the HIV virus. Steinman has published numerous frequently-cited articles in prominent journals, evidence of his status as one of the most prestigious medical researchers in the world. Among other awards and honours, he is a recipient of the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award and the Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Science and Technology (New York City). In 2011 he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (together with Bruce A. Beutler and Jules A. Hoffmann).
Steinman passed away in September 2011.